Monday, July 1, 2019

Alfonsina Storni, The Rosebush's Restlessness

This Spanish-language poet is a new discovery for me, though she's very famous in Argentina and among Spanish readers. This little poem was also the title poem of her first book, which she later seems to have put down or disowned —

At 19... I write my first book of verses, an awful book of verses. May God spare you, my friend, from La inquietud del rosal (The Restlessness of the Rose Bush)! ... I wrote it to survive. (Alfonsina Storni, in a letter from 1938)

Anyway, here it is in English. I don't doubt there will be more to follow as her work is quite gripping.

Spanish is richer in rhyme than English so the echo in my lines is minimal.

Alfonsina Storni 
The Rosebush’s Restlessness 
The rosebush with its restless way of blooming
is burning up the sap that stokes its being.
Just look at the roses dropping from the bush:
So many it will drive the plant to death!
The rosebush is no grown-up and in its haste
to give out flowers its impatient life is spent. 
                                                        [trans. Tracy Ryan]

Storni, from

Rilke and Unicorns (3rd instalment)

Tim this morning reminded me of Paul Muldoon's brilliant translation (in his book Hay) of the Rilke unicorn sonnet I posted about last time.

To round off my investigations among Rilke's unicorn poems, here is a version of Rilke's poem that actually bears the title, "The Unicorn".

Rainer Maria Rilke 
The Unicorn 
The holy man raised his head, and prayer
fell backward like a helmet off his head:
noiselessly, the never-believed drew near,
the white creature, that like a ravished
and helpless hind used its eyes to implore. 
The legs’ ivory framework moved about
with easy poise and equilibrium,
a white sheen floated ecstatic through the coat,
and on the creature’s brow, so clear and calm,
stood, like some moon-tower, the horn so bright,
raised more upright as each step came. 
The muzzle with its grey-pink fuzz
was drawn back slightly, so a little white
(whiter than all else) shone from its jaws;
the nostrils flared and softly panted.
Yet not bounded by any thing, its gaze
tossed images into the space around it
and ended a blue cycle of legends.

                                                           [trans. Tracy Ryan]

Here is part of Naomi Segal's comment on the original German version of this poem:

"This first unicorn text is the least typical in a number of ways. Actually titled ‘Das Einhorn’, unlike any of the others, it features no maiden; femininity is not focused, as conventionally, on the unicorn’s other, but on itself. The unicorn is compared to a female animal: a hind – this is something we almost never find in the literature, at least since the Lascaux painting 160,000 years earlier, though of course it is often a feminised male. The counterpart to the creature, to its distinctively unreal reality, is instead a saint. He is the focaliser, the whole three-sentence text being his vision; in this it connects to the sonnet, where again the being of the creature is dependent on a creative state of contemplativity on the part of others: this thing walks into one’s field of vision only when one is in a kind of dream. In such a state –prayer giving way to legend, the vocative to the collective imaginary – ‘das Niegeglaubte’ is made manifest."

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Rilke & Unicorns (2nd instalment)

Here is another Rilke unicorn poem, following on from yesterday's. Traditional sonnet rhyme scheme has been dropped (much as I used a completely different rhyme scheme for yesterday's translation) in the interest of minimising distortion.

Rainer Maria Rilke 
The Sonnets to Orpheus, Book Two (IV)

This is the creature that does not exist.
Unaware of that, in any case, they loved
its every trait – its posture, how it moved,
its neck, the light of each mute glance it cast.
No such thing. That through their love became
a pure creature. Always allowed space.
And in the space left blank, clear and precise,
it gently raised its head, needed hardly
to exist. It was nourished on no grain,
only upon the chance that it should be.
And this gave such substance to the creature
it put forth a horn that was a unique-horn
from inside. To a maiden whitely came
and was in the silvered mirror and in her.

                                                       [trans. Tracy Ryan]

Don Paterson has a fabulous version (pun semi-intended) in his Orpheus: a version of Rilke's Die Sonette an Orpheus (Faber & Faber, 2006), better than any other version I've read. The notes he's provided on his version in the appendix are also worth a read.

Josias Murer II (Swiss, 1564 - 1630), Orpheus Charming the Animals

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Rilke, Ladies and Unicorns: La Dame à la licorne

I've said it before: Rilke in translation is often misrepresented. And with the advent of the so-called "inescapable unicorn trend", he might become as misunderstood for his unicorns as for his angels.

However, that is no reason not to go on translating him (as Gass suggests, "Great poems are like granaries: they are always ready to enlarge their store.").

Despite Clive James's assertion that

"[p]oets in English continue to line up for the inevitable failure of translating his short lyrics" and "everyone falls short", 

I don't find Rilke as precious as people sometimes say -- though perhaps that's because I'm reading German not as a native speaker, so for me it has a toughness to it. The English translations sometimes do veer into being precious.

His unicorns are nothing like a high-sugar "frappuccino", or like the bizarre cake (non-vegan, not recommended!) I saw as I walked past a Miss Maud's yesterday...

He revisits unicorns in more than one poetic context: the most interesting to me is his response to the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries at the Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris. (They also appear in his one novel.)

As a young woman I had a print of one panel from the tapestries on the wall of my flat; later in the '90s I first got to see the real thing on a visit to Paris with John and our then-small daughter.

There are six of these tapestries. The one shown here is for me the most mysterious: the tent bears the words, "À mon seul désir", which can mean more than one thing ("by my desire alone"; "to my only desire", etc).

Here is a very simple English-language, deliberately colloquial, approximation of Rilke's poem. He keeps the French name for the tapestries.

More unicorns will follow.


Rainer Maria Rilke

La Dame à la licorne
(Tapestries in the Hôtel de Cluny)

for Stina Frisell

Woman and Worthiest: we’re always sure
to wound women’s destiny we just don’t get.
We are for you the still-not-matured-yet
for your life, that if we even graze against it
turns to unicorn, a shy white creature,

who flees... and has enormous fear that you
yourself / how slight it passes out of view /
after much unhappy living only
just find it again, warm, breathless, easily

startled. Then you stay with it, far from us
and softly your hands move over the keys
of the day’s work; things are meek in your service,
yet this is the sole desire you wish to fulfil:
that the unicorn find this once a forceful
mirror for its lulled image in your soul.

                                             [trans. Tracy Ryan]

Gass, W. H. (1999) Reading Rilke: reflections on the problems of translation. NY, Basic Books, p. 49

Monday, May 20, 2019

Tracy Ryan's and John Kinsella's Launch Speeches for Westerly Issue 63:2

Last November (2018), Tracy and I launched issue 63:2 of Westerly magazine in the Shakespeare Garden at the University of Western Australia. Here are our speeches — Tracy's first, then mine (John's)...


It’s a pleasure to be here this evening to launch Westerly 63:2, with its dynamic emphasis on community, both local and international. I want to acknowledge that this launch is being held on Aboriginal land – on Whadjuk Noongar land – and to express my respect for the strength and contributions of Noongar people, not only here on Whadjuk land, but also acknowledging Ballardong Noongar people, from among whom some powerful writers have contributed to this new issue of Westerly. As it happens, John, Tim & I live on Ballardong country.

It’s a privilege to learn from their poems in the Northam Noongar Poetry Project, and to be invited on the figurative walk the poems conduct. They emerge from the “Strong spirit,/ strong mind” referenced in Julie Wynne’s poem, “Rise Up and Be Strong”, which reminds us too of the centrality of voice and listening. It’s a credit to Westerly that its poetry pages make this connection with women from Ballardong country, beyond the journal’s base in Perth but not so very far away.

Just as bookshops, libraries and writers’ groups are important cultural loci or nodes within communities, literary journals at their best are not cut off from, but reflect (as well as influence) what is happening in those communities. With this issue, that sense of reflection is seen not only in the offering from the Northam Noongar Poetry Project, but in, for instance, the publication of David Malouf’s address from the recent Short Story Festival.

This sort of openness to events and developments in the immediate region is more than just a snapshot or a “what’s on”; it’s a live connection to the actual, and enables us to read disparate elements or features in a coherent context – so, for instance, we move back and forward between memorable short stories with the atmosphere of Malouf’s overview in the back of our mind.

When we read a story like Jane Downing’s “Caution Submerged Steps”, or Troy Dagg’s “The Pool”, we recall Malouf’s pinpointing of “engagement and empathy” as integral to the short story’s operations. The short stories in this issue all hover around questions of our relationship not only to place but to the people in it; our responsibilities whether faced or shirked or both.

In some of the poetry, these same concerns and linkages are encapsulated, for instance in Amy Lin’s “The Architecture of Grief”, where place and (absent) person merge; likewise, though differently, in Roland Leach’s poem, “Wreckage”. These points of crossover are of course not accidental; they represent skilled organisation on the part of all the editors concerned, and send ripples through the issue that have an effect bigger than the sum of its parts.

Similarly, despite respect for specific differences within Aboriginal people’s experiences, the issue allows us to read Cindy Solonec’s non-fiction about her forebears and family from the Kimberley in the light of what Ambelin Kwaymullina and Julie Dowling have to say about stories, and to reflect on the commonalities of family separation and its legacies also mentioned in the Northam Noongar Poetry Project, as in Janet Kickett’s “Story of My Life”. Westerly’s editors begin the issue with an emphasis on locatedness on Noongar country and “the complexities” that involves; it is heartening to read material that does not shy away from such complexities but embraces and investigates them. Congratulations to all who have contributed to and worked on this issue for its openness in this regard.

     Tracy Ryan

And mine (John's), which followed Tracy's on the night:

The polyphony of voices brought together in this issue of Westerly do not have their own localities, their own emphasis, threatened or dis-respected through the constructed community that is literary journal publication. In the polyambient nature of location, a consciousness that we speak out of our own experiences of place is set against the consciousness that we read other experiences and intensities of place through that same set of personal experiences. In these intersectionalities of ethical-place-concerns and shared and differentiated experience, we are surely reaching towards a more just co-ordinating of respect and belonging. Editors Catherine Noske and Josephine Taylor note in their introduction:

... our engagement with Indigenous authors in this issue has pointed more pressingly to our locatedness on Whadjuk Noongar boodja, Westerly’s presence on Country, and the complexities of past and future that involves. This cannot be underestimated in the unending process of understanding self. It is only appropriate, then, that this issue questions and considers the coming into self that writing has always offered. (p. 9)

In this acknowledgement is writ the unresolved fact of dispossession and privileging of a colonial authorising that’s intensifying rather than diluting. In Elfie Shiosaki’s interview with Julie Dowling, ‘Sovereignty, Self Determination and Speaking Our Freedoms’, we hear Julie Dowling say of her mob, ‘What they’re doing is mapping dispossession in terms of things and how we get treated by local mob.’ That’s unmapping colonialism with its own tools and an undoing of its destructive technologies, its technologies that will yield only desolation.

In Ambelin Kwaymullina’s brilliant article ‘Literature, Resistance, and First Nations Futures: storytelling from an Australian Indigenous women’s standpoint in the twentyfirst century and beyond’, she says of being a futurist storyteller: ‘But Indigenous Futurist storytellers do not only address the profound injustices of settler-colonialism. We also look to futures shaped by Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing.’ And goes on to cite Lou Cornum:

Indigenous futurism seeks to challenge notions of what constitutes advanced technology and consequently advanced civilizations [...] Extractive and exploitative endeavors are just one mark of the settler death drive, which indigenous futurism seeks to overcome by imagining different ways of relating to notions of progress and civilization. Advanced technologies are not finely tuned mechanisms of endless destruction. Advanced technologies should foster and improve human relationships with the non-human world. (np)

Further, thinking over the lines from the introduction to the issue quoted above, and the work of Nicholas Jose, whose novel, The Red Thread: A Love Story, is considered and carefully contextualised by scholar Wang Guanglin in the issue, I am reminded of Jose’s article on Randolph Stow’s Visitants in an issue of Transnational Literature from 2011, in which he also spoke of ‘locatedness’. He wrote: ‘For Cawdor [...] His desire is to step outside his own locatedness, and he prides himself on his capacity to do so. It proves damaging all round.’ (Nicholas Jose. Visitants: Randolph Stow’s End Time Novel Transnational Literature Vol. 3 no. 2, May 2011.

The relevant bit is, ‘It proves damaging all round’. When we subsume another’s locatedness, even if we are attempting to make connection that is protective and generative, we necessarily occlude, damage, and create false stories of presence. Stories of the self if disconnected from their cause and effect are damaging stories.

Aboriginal stories of location are part of stories that belong to their lines of heritage, and are theirs to tell. Julie Dowling includes this note after her interview: ‘The stories contained within this interview may not be reproduced without the story-owner’s permission.’ It is worth thinking about the issue of ownership here outside and inside the capitalist rubric colonisation imposes on it.

Ownership here is a resistance to theft, to having value added by colonial mechanisms in order to strip away connection to self and presence of its originators — this is what is being resisted in the Aboriginal work in this issue. When the Northam Yorgas offer their remarkable poetry, whose coming into being was facilitated through the participation of wonderfully engaged workshop people, it is offered not as something to take from, but something shared. It is shared (or not) by choice, and the conditions of its sharing are to be respected (as they have been by the workshops’ facilitators).

In showing editorial sensitivity to offering a zone of respect for creative and scholarly work of location, the editors are ‘curating’ but also resisting the curatorial urge to collate and to compartmentalise — their gatherings are to offer to liberate, not isolate, to respect, not constrain.

In his scintillating article, ‘Writer as Translator: on translation and postmodern appropriation in Nicholas Jose’s The Red Thread: A Love Story’, Wang Guanglin writes: ‘In a logocentric Western philosophy, which prioritises word over image, alphabet over ideogram, all human efforts are very much conditioned by either-or choices, which do not allow translation to experience other kinds of transformations.’ The colonialisms of translation are literally deconstructed (Derrida is an active shade in this text), and we might agree with Old Weng, as paraphrased by Wang Guanglin, ‘incompleteness is a way to continue people’s lives.’ (p. 64) Which is not to say we are not looking for resolution and completeness regarding injustice, regarding land and cultural theft, but that inside resolution, which we hope is achievable, the self’s journey is never finite or limited.

It is perhaps pertinent to consider: Beibei Chen’s article on Ouyang Yu’s novel The English Class, where he notes of the character Jing:

‘Jing is aware of his incompleteness, which causes a crisis of subjectivity at a key point in the text:
I hate myself so much for being unwhole, for being a traitor to everything I once held dear, for being unable to resist the temptation to fall into delightful peaces [sic], for the delirium that I have courted. (372) 
[Beibei Chen (p.183)]

What all readers have to be vigilant for is the process of how we access and utilise the stories shared with us, especially Indigenous stories and the theft they are told against. Ambelin Kwaymullina notes:  ‘The need for non-Indigenous writers to step away from (rather than into) the story spaces of Indigenous peoples is an issue that has been raised many times over’, and ‘But the privileging of the voices of cultural outsiders over cultural insiders remains a live issue across the Australian literary landscape.’ (Ambelin Kwaymullina, Westerly, p.148)

This issue is an enactment of principles — the curatorial becomes the collation and exchange within the skilful organising, the juxtaposition of pieces so we read in questioning ways. The self is given its own space to grow within its own community/ies and left intact — in fact, the entire issue challenges invasiveness. The remarkable prose poem project ‘curated’ by poetry editor Cassandra Atherton confirms how a medium, a ‘genre’, is never the same in different hands, and that a mode is always an undoing. ‘Divination: Linen and Dolphins: From Soft Oracle Machine, a collaboration with Chris McCabe’, by Vahni Capildeo, is a wonderful breaking out of the containment field of formality to bring new departures and proliferating conversations. And finally, I have to speak for the Fay Zwicky of 1995 and her eternal presence as part of Perth poetry, and the university — her spirit is with us, laugh at this comment as she would.

     John Kinsella